My husband and I had been in our mid-30s before we’d finally got around to talking seriously about having kids. We agreed to try, and if it didn’t happen, then it wasn’t meant to be. Totally chill. Totally calm.
Six months later, I wasn’t pregnant. I wasn’t chill. Nor was I calm. I started doing things that were anything but chill or calm. Like renouncing red wine and coffee. Obsessively charting my cycles. Peeing on a damn stick every single day of the month to confirm when I was ovulating. Feverishly taking my basal body temperature before I set foot out of bed in the morning. (Apparently the mere act of standing up throws your entire temperature out of whack, so if you get up before you’ve dutifully applied the special thermometer, you might as well not even bother.) The only result of all this was to make me edgy, irritable, and on the perpetual brink of a crying jag. (I blame the teetotaling for 95 percent of that.)
After 13 miserable and histrionic months of negative results, our nerves whittled to friable twigs, Mark and I decided to celebrate our eighth wedding anniversary not by having dinner at some San Francisco restaurant that required dress-up and makeup, but by holing up at home and cooking together in comfort. It was the night we finally pressed into service a recipe for a flank-steak marinade that my mother-in-law had emailed us long ago with the promise of succulent results, even if you lived in a scrunched urban apartment with only a broiler and no grill. The source? Her revered copy of The French Chef Cookbook, by Julia Child.
Our first order of business that night was to make the marinade. Given the amount of minced garlic and shallot called for in the recipe, the mixture was more pastelike than liquid, requiring bare hands to rub the piquant mixture evenly over the two pounds of fat-streaked meat. While I shiatsu-ed the steak, Mark tended to the second order of business: yanking the cork from a verboten bottle of our favorite pinot noir and splashing us each a hefty pour.
After the steak was marinated and broiled to a bloody rare, we carried our plates and glasses into the living room and plunked down on the couch to indulge in a shared passion: politics. Not exactly the stuff of bodice-ripping, euphemism-stuffed Harlequin romances, I know. But our anniversary that year happened to fall on the night of the second presidential debate, and we weren’t missing a moment of it. This was the town-hall debate hosted by an increasingly frustrated Tom Brokaw, who had to keep reminding candidates Obama and McCain of the rules. (This was also the debate that would later be parodied on Saturday Night Live, due to McCain’s restless and bizarre meanderings around the podiums.) By the time it ended, with Brokaw asking McCain to please get out of the way of his teleprompted script, our bodies were weak with laughter and wine.
And that steak, my Lord, that steak! It is not revisionist history to describe it as obscenely delicious. Between ecstatic bites, Mark and I would pause the TiVo so as not to miss a single Brokaw-ism and exclaim in disbelief over the steak’s intense beefiness and suppleness.
One of the most maddening “how to get pregnant” tips out there is the one that tells you to relax and just let things happen. Thinking about relaxing doesn’t work. Talking about relaxing doesn’t work. Forgetting about relaxing in order to eat steak and suck down a bright bottle of Anderson Valley pinot noir? That worked. By the glow of the TV, we sank ourselves into that steak-and-wine dinner, allowing our bundles of shredded nerves to be coddled with every bite we took, every sip we swallowed, every guffaw we shared. Thus it was with laugh-lightened spirits that we headed to bed.
A few weeks later, I was pregnant. Because of the meticulous math that all hopeful parents know so well and come to revile, I knew conclusively that it was that steak night that’d done it. I’d never even met the woman, yet Julia Child had gotten me knocked up. But even if the meal hadn’t produced such unexpected results, we still would’ve marveled at that marinade. It produced what was truly the most flavorful steak I’d ever cooked at home.
Still, I soon forgot all about that steak until what would’ve been Julia’s 100th birthday, last summer. A kind of foodie panic set in as I scrolled through the masses of adoring Tweets, and clicked on links to articles and blog posts that waxed rhapsodic and, in some cases, spasmodic about Julia’s boeuf bourguignon and her gratin dauphinois, her cassoulet and her coq au vin. What sort of foodie was I, if I couldn’t instinctively put my finger on my favorite Julia recipe? I sat there, paralyzed by the showcase of classic French recipes that didn’t resonate with me at all.
Then I recalled a passage I’d read in Julia’s autobiography, My Life in France, which noted, almost in passing, that although they’d wanted a family, she and Paul had been unable to have children of their own. It was an unexpected and seemingly small part of her story, practically an aside. Yet reading that detail of Julia’s life, as I had in the days before I was pregnant, gutted me with its poignancy. Remembering it now, I looked up from my laptop. For me, the most life-changing recipe of Julia Child’s was sitting across the breakfast table, staring me in the face, all plump cheeks and blue eyes. That afternoon, I took those plump cheeks and blue eyes to the store to buy a celebratory flank steak, which we marinated and broiled the Julia way.
Two weeks later, I discovered I was pregnant. Once again, it was Julia’s doing.
My favorite Julia Child recipes have always been the most basic ones, the ones that taught me the foundations of cooking. Not French cooking, not fancy cooking, just cooking. Like that flank-steak marinade, which I’ve since christened “Fertility Flank Steak,” much to Mark’s utter and lasting embarrassment. These quiet recipes maintain an elegance all their own, a modest force in their simplicity. Deep within each of them is reflected one of my favorite facets of Julia’s personality—not the impressively talented side, but the unfussy side. The side that served her guests Goldfish crackers and unashamedly declared her love for McDonald’s fries. The mom side. That’s the Julia Child I want in my kitchen.
Fertility Flank Steak
This simple, relatively little-known recipe from Julia Child somehow manages to ensure, in true Julia fashion, that the innate beefiness of the steak takes center stage.–Stephanie Lucianovic
LC Apartment Steak Note
For those of you who love to sear steak yet live in an apartment with little or no exhaust system, the broiler makes a relatively smoke-free alternative to a hot cast-iron skillet. Just saying….
Flank Steak Recipe
- Quick Glance
- 10 M
- 1 H
- Serves 4 plus leftovers
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- Pinch hot pepper flakes or several drops store-bought or hot red pepper sauce (such as Tabasco)
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed dried thyme
- 2 to 3 tablespoons minced scallions, shallots, or garlic
- One flank steak (1 1/2 to 2 pounds)
- 1. In a resealable plastic bag or a glass baking dish, combine the oil, soy sauce, lemon juice, pepper flakes or hot sauce, thyme, and scallions, shallots, or garlic. Add the steak, seal the bag or cover the baking dish, and marinate for 20 to 60 minutes at room temperature or up to a day in the fridge.
- 2. Preheat the grill or broiler.
- 3. Transfer the steak to the grill rack or broiler pan, leaving any excess marinade behind. (You can pat the steak dry if you wish.) Grill or broil the steak, turning once, until medium-rare or the desired degree of doneness. Let it rest for 10 or so minutes.
- 4. Carve the steak in thin, angled slices cut across the grain. Serve immediately.
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Flank Steak Recipe © 1971 Stephanie Lucianovic. Photo © 1971 Jennifer Maiser. All rights reserved.